Civil Liberties

House Passes NSA 'Reform' Bill That May Be More Show Than Substance


After months of Edward Snowden-sparked debate over the National Security Agency's (NSA) snoopy ways—specifically, its intrusions into private data and personal communications—the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3361, the USA FREEDOM Act, intended to restrict spying to actual international terrorist threats. But does the bill do what's advertised?

Perhaps the first hint that the legislation is weak tea is its sponsor's tepid endorsement of the much-revised final product.

"While I wish it more closely resembled the bill I originally introduced, the legislation passed today is a step forward in our efforts to reform the government's surveillance authorities," noted Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) upon passage.

On its face, the USA FREEDOM Act amends the PATRIOT Act to tighten requirements on legal authorization for surveillance, and restrict surveillance involving Americans to specified circumstances involving international terrorism and people outside the United States. But the relatively tight language penned by Sensenbrenner (who introduced the PATRIOT Act, only to be dismayed by its real-world application) was diluted in recent weeks to win wider approval from lawmakers and support from the White House.

Noting the changes made to Sensenbrenner's original bill, the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautions:

We are concerned with the new definition of "specific selection term," which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to surveil. The new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions. Less than a week ago, the definition was simply "a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account." While that definition was imperfect, the new version is far broader.The new version not only adds the undefined words "address" and "device," but makes the list of potential selection terms open-ended by using the term "such as." Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government's history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can't be relied on to protect our freedoms.

Nevertheless, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien calls the bill a "potentially powerful approach to stopping the mass collection of phone records." Despite his own misgivings, Sensenbrenner also adds that the revised bill "bans bulk collection, includes important privacy provisions and sends a clear message to the NSA: We are watching you."

The American Civil Liberties Union's Laura Murphy echoes other lukewarm endorsements. She says the USA FREEDOM Act is "far from perfect," but it remains "an unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA."

Some critics have less patience for the watered-down measure. The Reform Government Surveillance coalition of tech companies dropped support for the bill, saying, "The latest draft opens up an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users' data. While it makes important progress, we cannot support this bill as currently drafted and urge Congress to close this loophole to ensure meaningful reform."

Libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), also denounced the revised bill, saying it "maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program." He voted against the measure, which he cosponsored in its original form.

Passed by the House on a vote of 303-121, the USA FREEDOM Act now goes to the Senate, where it's expected to win approval. Whether it represents any sort of real legislative leash on the NSA or just "an unambiguous statement" to the snoops to cut it out remains to be seen.